While obesity is linked to a variety of health issues, simply being at an ideal body weight does not guarantee you perfect health. Your eating habits, exercise patterns, and how you handle stress all contribute to your wellness and risk for disease. Give these health indicators some consideration as you continue to evaluate your progress and reach your fitness goals.
Heart health is influenced by a number of factors including your weight, diet, exercise, age, and family history. While you don’t have control over all of these factors, there is plenty you can do to incorporate a healthy diet and stay active to benefit your heart. Get regular check ups from your doctor and gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to heart health, such as blood pressure and blood cholesterol. The American Heart Association considers a blood pressure of less than 120 over 80 to be normal, and a total cholesterol reading of less than 180 mg/dL to be optimal.
Many unhealthy habits can zap your energy. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar with little nutritional value, not eating enough, lack of sleep, and excess stress all influence how you feel. If you fall into a mid-morning or afternoon slump that leaves you drained, you may need to pay closer attention to your diet, sleep, and exercise patterns.
Reduce simple carbohydrates that can spike blood sugar and then cause it to crash, leaving you sluggish and hungry. Eat the number of calories recommended to reach your weight loss goal. The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. If you still feel low on energy despite adequate sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation, napping can improve alertness and enhance performance. Keep naps to 20 to 30 minutes so that it doesn’t interfere with good sleep at night. Stick with your regular exercise routine, but be sure you work in at least one rest day per week. Your body needs this time to recover. Overtraining can lead to fatigue and disrupted sleep patterns.
While maintaining a normal body weight is linked to improved health, a healthy weight does not ensure fitness. Strengthening your heart through cardiovascular exercise and your muscles through resistance training are important parts of a healthy lifestyle. Flexibility training also keeps you mobile as you age and allows you to perform cardio and strength exercises. Test your fitness level regularly to track your progress and ensure that you are not only losing weight, but also getting fit. If you belong to a gym, inquire about fitness testing. Sometimes an initial fitness assessment is included with your membership fees. You can also try out the self-guided Adult Fitness Test provided by The President’s Challenge that is available online.
Lean Body Mass
Maintaining muscle (or lean body mass) and reducing fat mass, especially around the abdominal area, can improve your health. Body fat percentage can be assessed in a number of ways, including skinfold caliper measurements, handheld BIA (bioelectrical impedance analysis), and underwater weighing. Your gym should be able to assist you with a body fat percentage assessment. The American Council on Exercise considers women with a body fat of 21 to 24 percent to be in the fitness category, while a body fat of 25 to 31 percent is acceptable. Men with a body fat of 14 to 17 percent are classified in the fitness category while 18 to 24 percent is acceptable.
Mood and Attitude
When you feel bad, it shows in your mood and attitude. There are many reasons you might feel cranky and irritable, such as excess stress, lack of sleep, and frustration with your health or your body weight. These feelings translate into a negative attitude towards healthy habits that can be difficult to overcome. The good news is that healthy eating can improve your mood and energy levels. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel happier and healthier. When you find yourself in a bad mood, evaluate your current habits. Have you missed a few workouts or could you improve your nutrient intake? Identify what is causing these feelings and make the necessary changes to improve your mood and embrace a healthy lifestyle.
The holiday season is around the corner and while you may not be ready to start celebrating, now is the time to plan how upcoming celebrations will fit into your healthy lifestyle. This time of year is notorious for commitments that interfere with exercise and for overeating unhealthy foods. By making a plan to overcome these obstacles, you will stay on track to meet your health and fitness goals.
Make a list of your favorite seasonal foods.
There are special holiday foods that you can’t get any other time of year. Depriving yourself will only make you feel miserable and increase the chances that you will give up and overindulge. Instead, decide how you will incorporate these foods into a healthy eating plan. Make a list of your must-have foods and estimate when these foods will be available -- pecan pie at Thanksgiving, Grandma’s cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning? When you plan for special treats, you can alter your food intake around this time so that you don’t go overboard on unhealthy fat, sugar, or calories.
Set exercise goals.
Think about what the holiday season really looks like for you. You might be someone with few commitments, who only needs to alter your exercise routine for light travel right around the holidays. Or you might be a person with a packed schedule from Halloween to New Years. Plan your exercise accordingly and set goals for what you’d like to accomplish over the next two to three months. Make these goals achievable. It’s okay to drop your workouts to three 30-minute sessions for a few weeks. Maybe home videos are a better option than a trip to the gym. Set an exercise goal for each week and incorporate healthy, non-food rewards for when you achieve each.
Draft a schedule of your regular commitments.
Most people attend the same parties year after year and travel to the same family reunion. Get these commitments on your calendar and include other tasks like gift shopping and baking. Next, add your exercise sessions to the calendar. Add some longer workouts in the weeks before you know things will get busy. Follow that up with a list of options for how you will stick to healthy eating throughout the coming weeks.
Prepare make-ahead meals.
Often the problem with the holiday season isn’t that you indulge in high-calorie foods a day or two. It’s when this pattern lasts for several weeks that the pounds pile on. Save your splurges for special occasions and prepare healthy meals to have available when you are too busy to cook. Most foods will stay fresh up to two months in the freezer. Bean soups and stews, vegetable lasagna, vegetarian burgers, cooked poultry, and sauteed greens all freeze well and can be thawed for an easy, healthy meal when your schedule gets out of control.
Decide what you will skip.
It might be passing on the cookie tray in favor of a slice of pie, taking a break from an evening exercise class to squeeze in an early morning session, or eliminating a task that causes you stress every year. In order to enjoy a healthy holiday, you have to make trade-offs. Not having every dessert available will save you hundreds of calories. You may miss your regular workout group, but successfully completing your workout is better than skipping it at the last minute due to a schedule change. Some old traditions need to be let go to make room for new, healthier ones. Spend some time thinking about what you will cut out of your holiday season to make it healthier and happier.
Put the plan into action.
A healthy plan will do you no good if you fail to put it into action. Start now by making every meal a healthy one and sticking to your regular workouts. When the parties and commitments begin, you will have several weeks of healthy habits established going in. Use your calendar, set reminders on your smartphone, and ask friends and family for support. All of these steps will make a healthy holiday a natural part of your lifestyle.
Trail mix makes a quick and healthy snack, but many packaged varieties are loaded with excess sugar and sodium. This version uses unsalted nuts, unsweetened dried fruit, whole grain cereal, and a few dark chocolate chips for a satisfying snack that is easy to pack with you during busy afternoons or on weekend hikes.
Yield: 14 servings
Preparation time: 5 minutes
3 cups puffed whole grain cereal (such as puffed kamut)
¼ cup raw cashew pieces
¼ cup unsweetened coconut flakes
¼ cup dark chocolate chips
¼ cup halved and sliced dried figs (about 6 figs)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Add the cereal, cashews, coconut, chocolate chips, and figs to a medium bowl. Stir to mix all ingredients.
Sprinkle the cinnamon over the trail mix and toss to coat all ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to three days.
Nutrition information for 1 serving (¼ cup): Calories 58; Total Fat 3 g; Saturated Fat 1.8 g; Trans Fat 0 g; Cholesterol 0 mg; Sodium 1 mg; Carbohydrate 7.1 g; Fiber 1.1 g; Sugar 3 g; Protein 1.1 g
Athletes use some of the best sports-specific training to improve fitness, speed, and strength. You don’t have to be an athlete to take advantage of the same effective exercises. By incorporating more challenging moves and using them in a way that matches your fitness level, you can gain similar benefits for health and exercise performance.
Cycling Sprint Intervals
Whether you cycle on the open road or hop on a stationary bike at the gym, sprint intervals will improve your cardiovascular fitness and increase calorie burn. Sprint intervals are a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT), a type of exercise that research shows improves aerobic and anaerobic fitness and insulin resistance.
How to do it: Set your stationary bike to a comfortable resistance that matches how you would feel cycling on a flat route. Start with 15 to 30 second sprints, cycling as fast as you can. Recover at a moderate pace for 2 minutes. Repeat the intervals throughout your workout. You can gradually increase your sprint time, decrease your recovery time, or increase your resistance to make the session more challenging.
Sports like rowing, swimming, and volleyball require excellent upper body strength and chin ups are a popular training exercise that target the back and biceps. This exercise isn’t easy. If you are new to it, check to see if your gym has an assisted chin up machine. These machines have a platform to kneel on that supports your lower body, making the exercise easier. Stick with it and you will be able to turn out a full set without assistance in no time.
How to do it: Stand facing the chin up bar. Use a step or jump up to grasp the bar with both hands. They should be about shoulder distance apart with palms facing you. As you hang in the starting position, slightly bend your knees, cross your feet at the ankles, and contract your abdominals to help stabilize your lower body. Pull yourself up until your chin is level with the bar. Your elbows should stay in close to your body and point towards the floor as you pull yourself up.
The speed skater exercise simulates skating and it can be incorporated as a cardio interval into any circuit routine. It works the lower body and the faster you move, the more you will increase your heart rate to improve fitness and burn calories.
How to do it: Hop to the right and land on your right foot. Your left knee should be bent with your left foot lifted off the ground. Hop to the left, landing on your left foot with your right foot elevated. As you begin to hop more quickly from side to side, swing your arms in the direction you hop in order to gain momentum and keep your balance. To make the move more challenging, reach down and touch the floor with your left hand as you land on your right foot and repeat from side to side. To make the move less difficult, remove the hop and step from side to side.
High Knees and Butt Kicks
Often used in track and field as a warm up, high knees and butt kicks can be incorporated at any phase of your workout. The leg movement helps to elongate and stretch the quadriceps and hamstring muscles and the faster you move, the better cardiovascular workout you will get. High knees also target the abdominal muscles. The movements can be done at a walking pace, running, or if you are limited for space, you can do them in place.
How to do it: As you walk forward, raise your knee high with each step. Contract the abdominals and lift it as high as you can. For butt kicks, with each step bend at the knee and bring your heel into contact with your bottom, or as close as you can get. The move should be exaggerated, contracting the hamstrings with each butt kick. Once you feel comfortable with the movement, pick up the pace and accelerate into a running motion as you perform high knees and then switch to butt kicks.
Jab and Cross
Boxing provides an effective workout that can be adapted to all fitness levels. Even if you don’t have access to a bag, simply performing the punch and kick moves will help tone the upper and lower body. You can start simple with a jab and cross combo and add more moves from there, like hooks, uppercuts, and front kicks. Incorporating jump rope or bob and weave intervals will help you get your heart rate up for a challenging session that works the whole body.
How to do it: Stand with your right foot in front of your left. Make a fist with each hand and bring your fists up to your chin in a guard position (as if you were protecting your face). Punch straight out in front of you with your right arm and return to guard position (the jab). Now punch with your left arm (the cross). As you punch with the left, pivot your back foot so that your hips move in the same direction as your punch. Return to the guard position and continue to jab, then cross. Try to incorporate a bouncing or jogging movement as you punch to increase your heart rate. Switch your leg position and jab with your left arm and cross with your right.
Comfort foods are known for being high in refined carbohydrates, calories, and unhealthy fat. Simple changes to your favorite recipes allows you to enjoy these foods while sticking to your eating plan.
Select low-sodium and unsalted stocks and broths.
Broths and stocks are a staple ingredient in soups, stews, and some casseroles. Packaged stock can be loaded with sodium with one cup containing as much as 510 milligrams. You can cut the sodium by several hundred milligrams by substituting low-sodium or unsalted stocks. Most recipes call for table salt on top of these ingredients, so you won’t notice a big difference in the taste.
Reduce the cheese.
Cheesy toppings on casseroles, potatoes, and pizza are hard to resist, but cutting back can reduce your calorie and fat intake. Some recipes like lasagna and scalloped potatoes use so much cheese that you won’t notice if you reduce the total amount. Begin by reducing what you use in the recipe by an ounce or two, or ¼ cup. As you get used to the new way of preparing the recipe, you can try to cut back even more.
Add shredded vegetables.
While the addition of vegetables to a dessert or casserole won’t automatically make it healthy, it can add fiber and vitamins. In baked goods, vegetables can also provide moisture that may allow you to cut back on added oils or milk. Shredded zucchini, carrots, and parsnips go well in cakes, quick breads, and brownies. Finely shredded cabbage can be added to meat fillings and sauces. Finely chopped dark leafy greens can be added to baked casseroles from mac and cheese to lasagna.
Use dark chocolate.
The heart health benefits of dark chocolate are still well supported by research making it an ideal option to satisfy a sweet tooth. While a square of dark chocolate may be the healthiest choice, when you splurge on comfort foods like cookies and brownies give them a slight nutritional boost by sticking with dark chocolate of at least 60 percent cacao. Darker chocolate has less fat and sugar as well as more of the disease fighting antioxidants that contribute to chocolate’s health benefits.
Use alternative flours.
Flour is often used in coatings for fried chicken and fish, in crumb toppings for desserts, and as a thickener for cream sauces. Nut flours and alternative grain flours (amaranth, teff, oat bran) won’t always decrease total calories, but they do supply a unique set of nutrients from protein to vitamins and minerals. Experiment with substituting these flours as well as 100 percent whole wheat flour in recipes that call for refined white flour.
Layer in vegetables.
Vegetables like summer squash, eggplant, and sweet potato can be sliced thin and added to casseroles. These additions can serve as substitutes for some of the noodles in lasagna, and they add a nutritional boost. Cauliflower and broccoli can be chopped fine and layered into casseroles and quiche to give you an extra serving of vegetables with the meal.
Make stock-based sauces.
Comfort foods like macaroni and cheese and creamy soups use heavy cream to create the sauces. You can reduce the fat and calorie content by using chicken or vegetable stock in place of the cream. The stock will often thicken just as well as cream when combined with flour and butter for the roux. Just be sure to select low-sodium or no-salt-added stocks because store-bought varieties are often high in sodium.
Use lean meats and vegetable substitutes.
When recipes call for ground beef, you can reduce fat and calories by choosing lean cuts such as ground round and ground sirloin, or by using ground chicken or turkey breast. You can also use smaller amounts of meat by adding diced mushrooms and greens like kale, or replace the meat altogether with these ingredients as well as beans.
It is surprising how delicious baked versions of your favorite comfort foods can be. When baked at high heat, fresh-cut fries brown nicely with crispy edges. Fish and chicken can be coated in nut meal or whole wheat bread crumbs and baked until browned. Pastries like yeast and cake donuts can be baked using a sheet pan or a donut pan, reducing the total fat content compared to frying in oil.